By Mark Halverson
How a twisted flick made by a frustrated filmmaker found its way to the fifth annual Sacramento Festival of Cinema
Sacramento News & Review
October 26, 2000
Reprinted from the Arts & Culture Section
Copyright 2000 Chico Community Publishing, Inc.
Chump change: That’s Stephen Burrows in all three photos, with Tim Matheson (left) and Traci Lords (above and right).
Filmmaker Stephen Burrows is no stranger to degradation. Entire city blocks of Chicago ground to a halt, and a rain-drenched Sean Connery chewed him out “to hell and back” after Burrows miscued the Scotsman into action on the set of The Untouchables.
His buddies still razz him about his embarrassing 1989 appearance on Wheel of Fortune (“Five Bud Lights, and I’d like to buy a vowel, please” is their happy-hour mantra). He was sued by show creator Merv Griffin after he turned his Pat-and-Vanna experience into an unflattering film short titled Soldier of Fortune. He then subjected himself to the dehumanizing drills of Hollywood, where one casting director compared him to a young Bea Arthur–and seriously meant it.
“Basically, I took all the humiliations that happened to me in the last five years and threw them into one movie,” says Burrows via phone from his home in the Hollywood Hills. The result is Chump Change (Fame, Fortune, Cheese and Beer), a wacky, low-budget, laugh-out-loud, semi-autobiographical comedy that screens Oct. 28 at the Crest Theatre during the fifth annual Sacramento Festival of Cinema.The 38-year-old Burrows, born in Dayton, Ohio, spent his formative years in Milwaukee. His great-grandfather owned a burlesque theater that was home to various sword-swallowers, hoofers and singers. His grandfather, a musician, led his own band. His dad played the musical saw on The Gong Show and won first prize. Actually, he tied with a performing dog and had to split the prize money.
Young Burrows swerved into show business during a 1985 stay in Chicago. The former class clown and lapsed political-science graduate was utterly floored by a stage show directed by the late Del Close, one of the founders of Chicago’s infamous Second City comedy ensemble and the man credited with discovering John Belushi and Bill Murray. Burrows was so taken by this Close encounter that he auditioned for–and joined–the director in the Baron’s Barracudas improvisational comedy troupe. Close’s advice to his new compatriot: “I heard you tell [true] stories that are funnier than anything you can probably make up. So if you stick as close to the truth as possible, you will do well.” Chump Change proves that Close was correct.
After Burrows married what he calls “a no-nonsense, right in your face, back atcha” farm girl from Michigan, he moved to Los Angeles and worked his way through the industry ranks. He played “the guy with psoriasis” in a TV commercial and appeared on Seinfeld. As a production assistant, he visited talent trailers, where he talked to a naked Buddy Ebsen and watched Bob Denver watch Gilligan’s Island on TV. He also wrote and performed for five years with the Groundlings comedy troupe, whose former members include Paul Reubens (a.k.a. Pee Wee Herman) and the late Phil Hartman.
Burrows eventually sold a script, on spec. When it disappeared into what he calls “development hell,” he compiled comic nuggets from his Wisconsin roots and real-life L.A. experiences into Chump Change. This giddy gem chronicles the roller-coaster career of “Milwaukee Steve” from his starring role in a jock-rash commercial to his life as an abused screenwriter. Steve flees to his native Wisconsin after being forced to do mind-numbing rewrites on an action-sex comedy titled The Whore, Her Mom, the Frog and the Bomb. He then meets a lady (former porn actress Traci Lords) who has rented his old bedroom from his mom and shares his misery via flashbacks.
There’s a John Waters casting-couch sensibility at play in the film that gives the gags and stitched vignettes a cheeky goose. Clancy Brown is especially effective as an over-the-top acting teacher, an extension of a character from Burrows’ Groundlings days. Fred Willard plays Steve’s slippery manager. Tim Matheson is the hyper-idiotic agent Simon Sez, who judges scripts by crotch reaction (“It’s your job as a writer to make my penis twitch,” he says). Anne Meara plays a bitter, egocentric casting director. Abe Vigoda plays an actor playing a French spy (his nonaccent is a showstopper), and Jerry Stiller is a Hollywood player.
The film is set in wintry Wisconsin. Kitschy shots of local taverns, businesses and tourist spots are woven throughout the film, which makes the location function as another character. The exhilarating, sincerely goofy soundtrack–which includes a polka version of “The Morning After,” the theme from ’70s disaster flick The Poseidon Adventure–by Wisconsin legend Steve Meisner, the Mozart of polka, complements these visual inserts. As a final touch, Burrows listed his urologist–who treated his kidney-stone attack during the film’s post-production–in the closing credits. “He was so touched,” says Burrows. “I said, ‘Dude, you gave me morphine. I owe you.’ “So how does a fun guy like Burrows end up in Sacramento for a film festival?
Entertainment publicist and freelance writer Jim Davis, the event’s media-relations director, was writing an article on film production in Wisconsin for Location Update magazine when the Wisconsin Film Commission dropped Burrows’ name on his plate. Davis, president of the Northern California Writers and Artists group for the last four and a half years, then invited Burrows to speak at that group’s Nov. 3 gathering. When Davis found out that Chump Change would be completed in time for the festival, he went after it.
According to Davis, the festival has been scaled back, significantly, from previous years, and its focus has been sharpened. “We want to show what can be made on a non-Hollywood budget,” he says, “so when local people write material, they can find the money to a make a film like Steve did.”
To that end, Davis sees the festival as a catalyst, bringing local writers and filmmakers together and inspiring them with new possibilities. “It’s very important to create an atmosphere where film is thought to be an integral part of the community,” he says. Screenings run from Friday, Oct. 27, through Sunday, Oct. 29, at the Crest Theatre. Friday’s all-day event features student productions from the Tower of Youth program, along with some related seminars.
That night, the program begins with Heartbeat, Matthew H. Perry’s 28-minute story about a helicopter pilot who crashes while delivering a heart for a transplant operation–and the organ starts talking to him about such issues as love, sex and existentialism. The main feature is Asunder, directed by Tim Reid; it stars Blair Underwood, Debbi Morgan and Michael Beach. This contemporary thriller about loss, grief and revenge evolves as two couples are torn apart when one of the wives dies in a freak accident. Reid, best known as Venus Flytrap on television’s WKRP in Cincinnati, will attend the event. Saturday’s lineup features a screening of Chump Change and a question-and-answer session with Burrows. The slate begins with the six-and-a-half-minute thriller The Nail in My Coffin by Fair Oaks resident Leon Corcos, which was shot in two days with an all-local crew. It stars Scott Craig Jones (a former B Street Theatre player) and Victoria’s Secret model Adele Uddo; locations include the Lake Natoma Inn, Harlow’s nightclub and Corcos’ home. The Convent (Nuns, Guns & Gasoline …), from director Mike Mendez, screens at midnight; it’s a campy homage to horror films that stars rapper Coolio and Sacramento native Adrienne Barbeau.
Sunday’s slate begins with Michael Carroll’s film Dog Soldiers: The Dogumentary, in which Carroll follows dog-walkers and investigates the canine culture in New York City. Back Home Years Ago: The Real Casino, from director Joseph F. Alexandre, is a 24-minute look at the real people behind the Scorsese mob epic Casino. It’s followed by A Place Called Sacramento, a collection of original digital video films that were created for a pilot program, developed by Access Sacramento, which provides opportunities for local writers and filmmakers.And who knows? Perhaps another Stephen Burrows lurks right here in Sacramento, obsessing over his family’s twisted show-business past, hoping someday to right that imbalance through the magic of film.